The Salvation Army activates emergency disaster response after catastrophic weather events

Apr 11, 2023 | by Brad Rowland

The Salvation Army activates emergency disaster response after catastrophic weather events

Story and photos by: Cindy Fuller, Michelle Hartfield, Aimee Murry, Chris Johnson

In late March, severe weather affected millions across the Southeastern United States, with tornadoes touching down in Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, and Tennessee. The first wave of powerful storms arrived on March 24, as a series of long-track tornadoes covering approximately 100 miles ripped through Georgia and Mississippi and created widespread damage in areas including Rolling Fork and Silver City in Mississippi and West Point in Georgia. The second series of tornadoes struck Arkansas and Tennessee approximately one week later, with more than a dozen dead and thousands left facing tremendous need in Benton, Little Rock, Wynne, Tipton County, and beyond.

The Salvation Army immediately responded to communities affected, and Emergency Disaster Services (EDS) teams provided food, hydration, and emotional and spiritual care to disaster survivors and first responders. In Rolling Fork, Mississippi, Salvation Army units were visited by President Joe Biden and First Lady Dr. Jill Biden, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves and First Lady Elee Reeves, and Rolling Fork Mayor Eldridge Walker. Salvation Army units from supporting states also deployed units to further the ongoing effort.

Through April 10, The Salvation Army served more than 32,800 meals, 46,400 drinks, and 40,600 snacks, with more than 6,500 hours of active service and more than 2,200 emotional and spiritual care contacts across four states. Those numbers will continue to grow as the response effort persists.

Many survivors continue wrestling with grief and trauma over lost loved ones and the destruction of their homes and neighborhoods. The Salvation Army plans to continue its response as long as needed, and is coordinating its efforts with federal, state, and local officials, as well as other social service agencies, to support survivors.

Sisters Help The Salvation Army Answer the Call

Volunteers have been called the backbone of The Salvation Army, playing a vital role in its activities, particularly during calamities. Two sisters — Doris Gleason and Charlotte Cates — were enroute to attend a surprise 80th birthday celebration of a childhood friend, when they were approached by the Disaster Resource Manager from The Salvation Army's Area Command in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The sisters were asked to lend a helping hand in responding to the tornadoes that hit Arkansas the previous Friday. Despite being so close to their destination, they instantly agreed and began to make alternate arrangements.

Although they had planned only an overnight stay, they called Charlotte's daughter in Benton, Arkansas to borrow a pair of jeans and tennis shoes. Doris, with a spirit of service, remarked, "I can wear a pair of pants for 10 days if it means serving others!" Their plan was to collect items for a garage sale on their way back home. Both sisters come from a religious background and are steadfast in their faith. According to Doris, "The greatest gift was to give back instead of going to the party." They consider it an honor to volunteer and work in the mission field.

Upon reaching the base command in Little Rock, they were assigned to serve 300 meals from a canteen that was serving first responders and survivors of the storms. Charlotte and Doris then began serving on a roaming rapid response unit to ensure that residents and responders are being provided the food, hydration and emotional care that is critical to those who have been affected by the devastation that these storms left behind. Charlotte had always dreamt of being a volunteer since she was a young girl. "It's like a bucket list item," she said. "A dream from childhood come true."

Doris, on the other hand, began volunteering 20 years ago in Yuma, Arizona, with The Salvation Army. Charlotte has been volunteering for four years, and both sisters assist with the Angel Tree program each year, serve at the Veteran's Coffee Bunker, and Doris even dresses up as "Big Red" (a shield costume) for special occasions, feeling it is her calling to volunteer.

"This work is very, very rewarding," said Charlotte. "When you help others, it reminds you of how truly blessed you are."

"We are so grateful!"

When a Salvation Army emergency disaster team received a call about an elderly man in a remote location near Winona, Mississippi with no electricity or running water, they packed supplies and hit the road. About a mile and a half off a gravel road, deep in the woods, The Salvation Army roving unit met Mr. Robert as he sat outside in an old antique rocking chair surrounded by debris.

Once his favorite porch rocker, it now sits on the dirt ground next to an old water well dug the year he was born. Mr. Robert's house is settled on over 120 acres of family land and was built by his great-great-grandfather in the 1800s. In fact, Mr. Robert, who is now 90 years old, was born in the same room he was sitting when the tornado hit on Friday, March 24.

This day was especially difficult as it also marked the second anniversary of his wife's death. They had been married for just over 59 years. Robert said he was in bed with his "little buddy," a poodle mix named Teddy, when the electricity went out, turning off his CPAP machine in the process. He moved to his recliner in the adjacent room to be inclined and breathe.

"Teddy was in the chair with me," said Mr. Robert. "It was steady lighting outside."

As he sat down, his window air conditioning unit was sucked out the window. He felt the house lift off the ground. "It picked the house up, and I thought we were about to go for a ride and not sure where we would land." The house completely lifted off its foundation and dropped several feet away, causing the walls to crack and the roof to cave.

"I tried to get out but couldn't,' he said. "All of the doors were jammed. Every one of them."

Tired and trapped, Mr. Robert said he laid back on the bed. Thankfully, his neighbors came to check on him when they smelled the strong odor of propane from the broken line. Mr. Robert said he was glad he and Teddy made it out alive. "He has been with me every day and night since my wife died. He was her dog."

Lt. Roy Fisher, corps officer in Meridian, is a certified grief coach and took the opportunity to listen as Mr. Robert "reminisced about his life growing up in the country as well as the wonderful story of his wife and their life together." Lt. Fisher said his training and experience have taught him the importance of listening to survivors and asking questions about their experiences.

"In the midst of the destruction, there was a peace that came over us as we sat there and talked," said Lt. Fisher. Thankfully, his family and friends, who call him "Papa," are working to help him clear the destruction and sort through the next steps.

More Than a Partnership

First combining efforts in New York City during the aftermath of 9/11, The Salvation Army and Southern Baptist Disaster Relief continue a fruitful partnership that shines as an example of what can be accomplished when organizations stand together and work toward a common goal. In times of disaster, the partnership is seamless and complementary, with The Salvation Army utilizing a comprehensive distribution operation and the Southern Baptist Disaster Relief network providing the ability to produce meals in large quantities.

"Our relationship with Baptist Disaster Relief is more than a partnership, it's a friendship," said Laurie Fried, divisional director for The Salvation Army of Arkansas-Oklahoma's emergency disaster services. "It's an ongoing relationship. We communicate before, during, and after storms to see how we can best serve those affected. They are truly a blessing to work with, even if the circumstance that brings us together is a disaster."

"We're very appreciative to partner with likeminded groups, like The Salvation Army, with a heart to serve the community," said Randy Garrett, Arkansas Baptist Disaster Relief Director. "Arkansas Baptist Disaster Relief is here to bring help, healing and hope to those in need. We're here until the end. We don't pull out early. We stay until the last person that needs help gets help. The Salvation Army does the same. They're a blessing to work with."

The Salvation Army also stands alongside other partners in this relief response, including Walmart, which quickly distributed bulk water and ice to the Rolling Fork community. Walmart associates also showed up in full force to participate, even bringing their cook trailer and preparing hot, fresh meals for all who needed it.

"We are grateful to The Salvation Army teams who quickly mobilized to provide much needed resources and services for the communities impacted by the recent tornado in Mississippi," said Brooks Nelson, senior manager, disaster response and preparedness, "We are proud to work side-by-side providing water and food to serve the Rolling Fork community."

A Generous Donation from Love's Travel Stops & Country Stores

Love's Travel Stops & Country Stops is headquartered in Oklahoma City, with more than 600 locations nationwide. The organization provides motorists and professional truck drivers with 24-hour access to clean, safe places to purchase gasoline, travel items, electronics, snacks, and more. The organization also has a hospital division providing a growing network of hotels and storage rental locations. In response to the widespread tornado outbreak in late March, the company partnered with its customers for a large donation of snack items that was loaded into Salvation Army canteens and distributed to first responders and survivors in Arkansas.

"We are incredibly grateful for the support of Love's and its customers in helping us meet the needs of those affected by the tornados," said Cindy Fuller, spokesperson for The Salvation Army. "Their donation of snack items will help sustain our relief efforts and provide comfort to those who have lost so much."

The Salvation Army relies on burgeoning corporate partnerships, as well as individual contributions, to ensure that the needs of affected communities are met. This donation from Love's is not only an act of corporate responsibility, but also an inspiring testimony of local communities coming together to help those in need.

A Key Component

The Salvation Army strives to meet human need in His name without discrimination, with the organization springing into action to meet physical need in the aftermath of disaster. The Salvation Army is also able to touch the lives of many beyond service delivery, however, as emotional and spiritual care (ESC) is at the forefront of any deployment.

Testimonies emerge from across affected areas following the multi-state tornado outbreak, with individuals facing unimaginable hardship and leaning on others to persevere. Shannon was offered an additional shift of work, dropping her husband off at work and her child at daycare just moments before their home was destroyed by a tornado. Still, she shares that her faith in the Lord remains strong and she is appreciative of the meals and prayers from The Salvation Army.

Toby, who was inside his home when the tornado struck the structure, shared his gratitude toward The Salvation Army. His father was served by the Army in New Guinea, forming a lasting bond, and that emotional connection only grew in the wake of this challenging time, as Toby offered prayers for those serving, in addition to those being served.

A 105-year-old and her daughter found themselves sheltering in place during and after the storms struck their neighborhood. Sergeant Brian Drummond, corps administrator in Fayetteville, Arkansas, visited the property on a canteen and, after bringing a meal and a cold drink, he heard a harrowing story of survival. The testimony included the sentiment that "God must have more for her to do," and Sergeant Drummond was overwhelmed with emotion following the encounter.

"It's amazing to see that even at 105 years old, the Lord still has something for her," Sgt. Drummond said. "She was surrounded by her family and they were amazed by her resilience. It was such a great feeling to be able to pray with this wonderful family."

Loaves and Fishes in the Mississippi Delta

The Mississippi Delta is a beautiful place full of history and vibrant communities. When tornadoes ripped across the entire state on Friday, March 24, many of these communities were thrown into chaos. What followed is an example of humanity and southern hospitality at its finest.

When Salvation Army units deployed to the communities of Blackhawk and Summerfield, crew members discovered a distribution center that was not an official distribution center at all. Renee, a longtime resident of Blackhawk, explained.

"Loaves and Fishes," she said. "That's the best way to sum it up. Ms. Ailene came out here yesterday with 25 biscuits and water, and it has grown from there."

Inspired by one person intending to serve only breakfast, community members started to bring donations. That grew to multiple tents providing any number of necessities and caravans of all-terrain vehicles taking coolers of ice and supplies to people still trapped by impassable roads and unable to drive out.

"This is a community that loves their people," said Ailene Downs, whose breakfast offering inspired the impromptu distribution center. "We are small but mighty. This is an outpouring of love like I have never seen before."

Mayor Washington Bell of Summerville was one of the leaders to request meals from The Salvation Army to add to this community effort. "It's sad that this is necessary, but it is amazing to see the community come together like this."

"The community response has been truly inspirational," said William Trueblood, Divisional Emergency Disaster Services Director. "We are blessed to be a part of this. We hate that we have to do it, but we love that we get to."

Salvation Army Serves After Tragic Shooting in Louisville

In the midst of the ongoing tornado response in multiple states, The Salvation Army maintains its far-reaching impact, not only in daily ministry and service, but also in other emergency response efforts. This is the case in reaction to a mass shooting in Louisville, Kentucky on Monday, April 10. Within hours of the tragic event, The Salvation Army's presence was requested by local emergency management officials in the city, and a mobile feeding unit was deployed to provide hood, hydration, and other support to first responders and survivors.

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